Americans have long wrestled with how, or whether, to separate politics from religion: many people would agree that their pastors or rabbis shouldn’t tell them how to vote. But clergy members have their own, often strongly held, political views—and new research by a Harvard Kennedy School Ph.D. student suggests that those views affect not only the lives of clergy members, but those of their congregants and the nation at large. 

Conducted by Gabrielle Malina, a Ph.D. student in Harvard’s joint Social Policy and Government program, and Eitan Hersh, an associate professor of political science at Tufts University, the research comprises a massive survey of more than 130,000 American clergy members across 40 Judeo-Christian denominations and sects. They hoped to gain a better understanding of the relationship between clergy members’ partisan affiliations, the political leanings of their congregations and the way both pastors and parishioners engage with social issues.

Malina and Hersh combed denominational websites to compile an extensive list of Judeo-Christian clergy members. They matched 130,000 pastors, priests and rabbis with their voter-registration records, and used that information to figure out each clergy member’s political affiliation. Hersh and Malina then compared the clergy members to their congregants, using data from another survey, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.

Denomination party chart.

Their takeaway? Initially, it appears that clergy members are more partisan than their congregants. Crucially, because of the influential position of clergy in their congregants’ lives, their partisan leanings may influence congregants’ voting behavior and their opinions on social issues such as welfare spending, abortion, gay marriage and healthcare. 

“It’s a massive novel data set,” Malina says, though she admits to the existence of several gaps, most notably, the absence of Muslim clergy. Since there is no central directory of mosques in the U.S., information on imams proved difficult to find, as well as a reliable listing of clergy from non-denominational or independent churches, and some largely black denominations. She and Hersh are hoping to collaborate with the Pew Research Center to fill in some of the gaps. Their current work has already been featured in the New York Times and the Atlantic

Malina’s research interests lie at the intersection of inequality, public life and political psychology, with a current focus on the dynamics between religious beliefs and political attitudes. She has thrived in the wide-ranging Social Policy and Government program, which has allowed her to explore topics such as education policy and her current work relating to religion, and as a doctoral fellow of the Malcolm Wiener Center's Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy. 

“There’s a huge set of questions we can’t answer yet,” Malina says of the survey results. “What social issues are congregations engaging on? Do people choose a church or synagogue based on the leader and his or her political views, or do they engage with that piece later?” She also points out that clergy members’ political leanings seem to be closely aligned with their denominational affiliation, though the strength of those affiliations varies. As expected, partisanship also varies by region, even among the same denomination: for example, pastors in the Northeast tend to be broadly more Democratic than their counterparts in the South or the Midwest.  

“How will that partisanship [of clergy members] matter?” Malina asks. “We’re obviously not sure yet: there are lot of questions, and a lot of refining still to do. But it’s exciting to be able to talk about this topic with quantifiable data.” She hopes to further explore these connections in her future research. 

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